A+ A A-

Hildebrand the Great


Somewhere in the marginalia of my facsimile copy of a Calvinist Bible, there's a gloss that gives a name to one of the apocalyptic creatures of prophecy.

Join the worldwide Magnificat family by subscribing now: Your prayer life will never be the same!

gregoorygreatSaint Pope Gregory the Great

I'm not sure whether it was Gog or Magog or the beast with the number 666, but the commentator duly notes that the sacred author had foreseen "that devilish Hildebrand," whom Catholics honor as Pope Saint Gregory VII.

Why "that devilish Hildebrand"?  Let's turn to one of the most famous moments in Medieval history.

The scene is Canossa, a castle on a bare rock perched high in the Apennines of northern Italy.  It's held by a woman of immense political accomplishment, the countess Matilda of Tuscany.  She herself would merit an epic novel; a founder of churches and the supporter of reforming abbots, bishops, and popes; a learned woman who corresponded with her close friend Saint Anselm; the aunt of Godfrey of Bouillon, who would one day free Jerusalem from the Turks; and the commander of armies holding every mountain pass between Lombardy to Rome.  She was not to be taken lightly.

With her is Hildebrand, now Pope Gregory.  He is much older than she, but no less determined to assert the independence of the Church and the pope's right to appoint bishops and abbots, so that men of God govern dioceses and abbeys, not men of the world, trading in ecclesiastical offices just as their secular brothers traded in gold and land and armies.

'Why," you might ask, "would a worldly man give up half his manhood to be a bishop, rather than marry and become the progenitor of a powerful family?" Ah, but such men had no intention of forgoing the pleasures of the bedchamber and the prerogatives of fatherhood.  "Men must live in the world!" said the German bishops in disbelief, when Gregory commanded them to give up their concubines and to cease celebrating the sacraments if they had obtained their positions by simony — putting the Holy Spirit up for auction.  It's the old song.

A King in Bare Feet

There's one more figure in the scene.  It is the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV.  But he is not inside the castle.  He is outside: barefoot, in the snow, in the dead of winter.

An old jest has it that the Holy Roman Empire was neither an empire nor Roman nor holy.  There's a lot of truth to that.  The emperor was a feudal Germanic lord who held court in Milan or Sicily or the Calabrian town of Cosenza, but hardly ever in Rome.  If the Church was fortunate, the emperor might lead a crusade; if not, he'd set himself up as a rival to the pope in everything, with bishops as his chess pieces, and plenty of soldiers for pawns.  Against him an aged pope had to rely upon military allies or the often dubious loyalty of his bishops, or, as Gregory did, his spiritual authority and his reputation for sanctity.

You will make friends in high places.  People will speak well of you.

When the young Henry first ascended the throne, Gregory urged him not to impede him in his aim to clear out the rat-nests of corruption in a Church that had gotten commandeered by the half-pagans of the north — not to say that France and Italy were much better.  As usual in such cases, Gregory had the great support of common people, who do not actually admire prelates with fine horses who go out hunting and whoring.  Henry broke that promise.  He wanted creatures of his own in charge of the monasteries and dioceses.  He would "invest" them, giving them their croziers and placing the miters on their heads.

Gregory wrote to him several times, warning him, recalling him to his promise, but to no avail.  So he excommunicated the emperor.  This meant that Henry's subordinates were released from their vows of obedience, and the common people looked upon it as curse.  So when other German dukes began to move and Henry was at the end of his rope, he went as a pilgrim to Canossa, in the garb of a penitent, to beg absolution from the pope.  Gregory was wary of the emperor's motives.  I doubt very much that Matilda wanted anything other than to put Henry behind lock and key, and crush his army while she had it at a disadvantage.  But Gregory was a man of God.  He allowed Henry to humble himself for three days in that snow, and then he took him in and lifted the excommunication.  After which Henry returned to his old ways, betraying the pope again.  Saint Gregory ended up dying in exile from Rome.

Where Is Your Treasure?

"I don't understand," you say.  "The emperor wanted as bishops men who were liars and lechers in shepherds clothing.  What did the annotator in your Bible object to?" Remember what Jesus says about God and mammon.  No man can serve two masters.  You will love the one and hate the other, or hate the one and love the other.  Those words bear upon what we believe to be the relationship between our spiritual and our secular heads on earth.  To whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance here?  Is it the pope, or is it the king?  Is it the Church, or is it the nearest and biggest human creation, the state?

I'm not going to specify just what in our lives belongs more fittingly and immediately to this province or that.  I'm not going to engage in theories of governance, which were not on Henry's mind anyway.  The question is of order.

A Henry IV comes your way, clapping you on the bad, asking your advice on how to settle that uprising in Thuringia, and congratulating you for your shrewdness and courage.  After the flattery he comes to the point.  "The pope, you know, thinks," or "the Church, as much as we love her, still" and then he asks you to choose the world instead, in just this one little regard.  An unborn child here, a boy whose manhood was perverted there, a dash of heresy for intellectual spice; waving the flag for your fatherland, whatever.  You will make friends in high places.  People will speak well of you.

Do people who choose the state want the Church to be pure?  Not at all.  They are gladdened by the sight of corruption there.  It gives them their excuse.

There it is.  Plenty of popes before Gregory had shrugged.  Gregory could have done the same, and then died fat and comfortable in Rome.  The call to treachery comes in many shapes and all the colors of the rainbow.  When it comes to punishing the Church, any stick will do — or any sot of a tyrant, like Henry VIII.  Men prefer slavery to the state, if the state permits them some of their favorite vices, to the glorious liberty of the children of God.  Do people who choose the state want the Church to be pure?  Not at all.  They are gladdened by the sight of corruption there.  It gives them their excuse.

They want priests to marry, not because they care about priests, but because celibacy and purity are reproaches to a worldly life.  They will say that Gregory insisted that priests be celibate, because he wanted Church lands to stay in the control of the Church, rather than being passed along as inheritances.  Thus is the Church damned both ways.  When churchmen treated the Church as rich men treat their estates, the world scoffs and calls them greedy; and when a Gregory demands that they no longer do so, the world scoffs and says that the Church is greedy.  Nothing will please the world but the reduction of the Church to irrelevance.  We should be accustomed to this by now.

Another Burning Brand

Hildebrand, that fiery and holy man with the German name, was born in Italy.  So was another Hildebrand, whom I'd like to mention here, because where one is praised, so should the other be.

The Hildebrand I am thinking of now, Dietrich von Hildebrand, the son of an aristocratic sculptor, was born in Tuscany, and spoke Italian as his native language.  His family was not religious, though his parents instilled in him a love for beauty, both artistic and intellectual.  He grew up a lively young man filled with enthusiasm for the truth, and that led him, in his university years, into the Catholic Church.

When Adolf Hitler seized Austria, the man first on his list to kill was Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had inveighed since 1921 against Nazi paganism and their filthy hatred of the Jews.  He, too, like his namesake more than eight hundred years before, had to flee from his homeland and all that he held dear.  He, too, like his namesake, loved the Church.  He, too, grew old in a time of troubles.  When the Church's enemies had fooled those who should have stood firm for her freedom and her precious treasure of truth — enemies who wanted the Church to become more like the world rather than the world being leavened by the Church — this modem-day Hildebrand said that it was like a Trojan horse entering the City of God.  He has left us countless works of philosophy and theology, most of them yet to be translated from his second language, German.

Two burning brands, afire with holy love.  Who will be the third?



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Hildebrand the Great." Magnificat (May, 2017).

Join the worldwide Magnificat family by subscribing now: Your prayer life will never be the same!

To read Professor Esolen's work each month in Magnificat, along with daily Mass texts, other fine essays, art commentaries, meditations, and daily prayers inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours, visit to subscribe or to request a complimentary copy. 

The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. He is the author of many books including: Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian LifeIronies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2017 Magnificat
back to top